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By: oraymw, Oraymw
Oct 19 2011 11:46pm
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Innistrad prereleases were this weekend, and MTGO was on fire. This has to be one of the most well attended prerelease in MTGO history. Sixteen person sealed queues were firing every few minutes, and there were close to two thousand people in the sealed events room all of Friday and most of Saturday. The combination of Innistrad’s resonant creative design, its well-balanced limited environment, and the novelty of flip cards, the nostalgia of flashback, and the hidden complexities built into every game state, this is looking to be one of the most popular limited formats in history. Whether that distinction is deserved is something we’ll have to wait to see, but my first impressions are that this format looks like tons of fun.

Many of you were willing to bite the bullet on the 30 tix price tag for the sealed events, or the 20 tix for a draft event, but if you are like me, you just aren’t willing to join a table with that kind of EV. Theoretically, the price of the event is mitigated by the higher cost of rares, but it is still a kind of roulette, since you are much more likely to just open rares that are worth hardly anything. I boycott the prerelease events simply because I refuse to do something for more money now that I can do for less money later. The problem is that when a set is prereleased, people jump into the events in droves, and they get a lot of experience with the set in limited. Meanwhile, players like me who boycott the prerelease fall further and further behind in experience, and then we have to try to catch up when the actual release happens a few days later. This might not seem like much, but for player’s who are trying to eke out every possible edge, this is a frustrating experience.  There has been a lot of recent discussion over this problem and what WotC should do to correct the problem, and I don't have any of those answers, nor is that the focus of this article.
Because of this problem, I was searching for ways to mitigate the falling behind in experience without having to foot the bill for a prerelease, and an interesting solution dawned on me. For sealed events, MTGO allows users to open up a running event in which they are not participating, and watch the game replays, so I hopped into the sealed swiss room and opened up one of the events. My intention was to watch all of the matches in the event, and then be done, and call that my prerelease experience. What I wasn’t expecting was that game replays are significantly faster than normal replays, and I was done much faster than I expected. So I hopped in another event and opened up some more replays. Fast forward to Saturday just before midnight, and you’ll see me opening up the very last sealed event to fire so that I could catch just a few more events. Overall, I watched sealed matches for more than 10 hours, and I saw probably around 300 or so matches, possibly more. Then, on Tuesday, opened up the PTQ and scanned through the hundreds of matches that were going on, and managed to watch another 100 matches.
I know that sounds crazy, but it was still an incredible experience.. Consider that if you did six sealed events this weekend you would have played in perhaps 24 matches. Maybe you watched a few matches between rounds, and you saw as many as 50 matches over the entire weekend. That is a lot of sealed in one weekend, more than most players would be able to dedicate, and you would have a powerful view of the format. I watched around 6 times that many matches.
Each match features two player’s decks, which means that it has the possibility to showcase 13 to 14 rares, accounting for flip cards and foils. The number of rares that could potentially have been played in 400 matches is more than 5000. The list of rares that I didn’t see in play is as follow: Stony Silence, Rooftop Storm, Heartless Summoning, Parallel Lives, and Witchbane Orb (all for obvious reasons). I saw Olivia Voldaren probably 15 or more times. I saw Devil’s Play win so many games, practically by itself, that I got pretty sick of the dang card. I probably saw Elder Cathar more than 100 times. This was a singular experience which has provided me with more insight into the set than I’ve ever had for any set going into release events.
There are some significant downsides to watching events like this. The most important is that you don’t actually get any experience in the actual decision making part of Magic; only playing Magic can teach players to make correct decisions. The second problem is that you don’t have access to any hidden information. This is especially problematic for cards like Smite the Monstrous, which has a profound impact on the game when it is cast, but you can’t see how often it sits in a player’s hand, just taking up space while they get clobbered by Stitched Drakes or Chapel Geist. The worst part for me is that it doesn’t involve playing any actual Magic. I don’t love Magic because I can sit around and watch other people do awesome stuff, I want to be in games, slinging spells like anyone else.
In any case, the purpose of this article is to communicate some of the things that I learned from this experience. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive discussion of individual cards; there are plenty of other places to get that information. Instead, my goal is to help you understand the environment as a whole. After the general discussion, I’ll move on to talking about the defining commons and uncommons of the particular colors.
When I was writing about the potential of Transform and Flashback in limited in this article, http://puremtgo.com/articles/ars-arcanum-innistrad-mechanics-limited-transform-and-flashback, I spent some time talking about how tempo would probably be key to the format. Boy was I ever right. Tempo is perhaps the most misunderstood theoretical concept in Magic, and I expect that Innistrad is going to prove very difficult for the majority of Magic players, since they think that understanding card advantage and mana curve makes them good. It’s easy for players to understand Card Advantage, since they can see the effects that having more cards has on the game. And it’s easy for players to understand mana curves after they watch people cast threats on all the early turns, and they just aren’t able to respond quickly enough. But tempo is a much more abstract concept, and understanding it is often the difference between being just a good player and being a great one.
Many players who are much better than me have written articles or entire series of articles talking about tempo, so there just isn’t enough space to explain it fully here. But so that we are all on the same page, when I talk about tempo, I am referring to the way that players manage the pace of the game. The two cards above are prefect examples of the way tempo is important in Innistrad limited. Krallenhorde Wantons are the flip side of Grizzled Outcasts, which costs 5 mana. This typically means that it will come down on turn 5 or 6. That is often a point when players start to run out of thing to cast, so they’ll spend their next turn allowing the Outcasts to flip, turning them into a 7/7. If their opponent follows that up with a Silent Departure, they’ll be significantly behind their opponent in time and options.
There are several issues conspiring to make Tempo so important in Innistrad. The biggest two are Transform and Flashback. Every transform card requires some kind of investment to change from day to night, and removing those cards means setting their controller back dramatically as far as their mana and board development. The most important of these are the werewolves. Werewolves change sides according to the number of spells played in a turn, which is also one of the key components of tempo. A player will often have to invest a turn of board development and mana usage in order to make their werewolves flip, and being able to follow that up with a removal spell or a bounce spell, or maybe just two spells chained together, can often set the werewolf player back an entire turn.
Flashback is the other big culprit in the tempo department. Normally, limited games involve casting creatures on both side, interspersed with removal to make openings for attacks. There is typically a flurry of action in the mid game, but then if both players are still alive, they will enter into topdeck mode. Essentially, they run out of cards into which they can sink their mana. This is why card advantage is so important; if you have more cards, you have more places to put your mana and generate an advantage in the late game. Flashback changes things dramatically. Suddenly, the spells that you play in the early and mid game have an impact on the late game. Whenever well-built Innistrad decks face off, you are going to see players finding lots of options well into the late game. This is important because it makes grinding card advantage a little less important, while it makes Tempo even more important. If you are the player controlling the pace of the midgame, you are going to keep your opponent from being able to make use of all their tools, and you’ll get a significant advantage.
But these aren’t the only things influencing tempo. The Zombies also require additional investment to come online by eating a creature from the graveyard. This means using some kind of enabler or letting a creature die. Playing an enabler often means using some time to do something that doesn’t affect the board quite as dramatically, while losing creatures makes you much less able to control the pace of the game. If someone kills or bounces your Stitched Drake, you’ve lost a pretty big investment. The same thing is true of green’s morbid creatures. They require you to play them during a narrow window to gain full power, which opens player’s up to more tempo shenanigans. We see the same problem with red’s Vampire/Sliths, and white’s victims. Altogether, there are both a lot of tools for managing tempo, along with plenty of opportunities to gain a tempo advantage.
There are a couple of ways you can use this to your advantage. The most common mistake I saw over the weekend were that many players would try to flip their werewolves as soon as possible, instead of developing their board. Then their opponent would either kill the werewolf or play two spells or even play an instant during their opponent’s end step (thus preventing the wolves from flipping). Don’t allow give your opponent such an obvious opportunities to control the pace of the game. Make the plays that allow you to determine the pace of the game. Another important factor is to not durdle around. There are a lot of nifty interactions in this set, many of them involving cards like Forbidden Alchemy or Stitcher’s Apprentice. While those cards are potentially powerful, too many players get fancy play syndrome and try to create complex interactions, when they should just be trying to develop their board in order to maintain tempo.
Balance and Depth
One of the most fascinating parts of Innistrad is the balance between the power levels of the Commons vs. the Uncommons, Rares, and Mythics. This most reminds me of Ravnica block (thought it isn’t quite as well balanced as RGD). We are used to sets like Scars of Mirrodin where there is a sharp difference in power level between the Commons and the Uncommons, and another marked difference between the Uncommons and the Rares. Cards like Grasp of Darkness were nowhere on the level of Skinrender, and then you get Carnifex Demon at rare.
But in Innistrad, we see things like Cackling Counterpart at Rare, which might be a little better than Murder of Crows at Uncommon, which is a little bit better than Claustrophobia at Common. There are a few exceptions, especially in Black which seems to have the bulk of the über-powerful rares in the set, but on the whole, we see a much more gentle gradation between the power level of rarities. This is important, because it means that decks will be less dependent on opening the most powerful bombs, and more dependent on crafting synergies. I’ve seen this over and over in Innistrad sealed. Yes, having cards like Olivia Voldaren, Bloodline Keeper, or Devil’s Play greatly increase your ability to win, but these cards absolutely have answers. So many players have been able to find creative ways to deal with those cards.
The other consequence of having a flatter power curve on cards is that everything is generally more playable. Even things like Dream Twist, Feral Ridgewolf, or Gnaw to the Bone are much more playable than I would have ever expected. There are so many things going on in the set that almost every card has a place within specific archetypes. This changes a limited format because it is no longer about simply memorizing a list of cards according to power; instead, this is a format where you have to reevaluate every card you come up against according to how it fits with the strategy you have already drafted. This means that rigid card evaluations are fairly useless in Innistrad; one of the most common threads through the Innistrad sealed events is seeing players get angry with their opponents for winning with “inferior” cards. Apparently players think that their ability to form generalities about cards makes them a better player than people who are able to piece together synergistic strategies. That kind of arrogance is going to make a lot of players very frustrated with Innistrad limited a few weeks down the road. Don’t be one of them.

Common Errors

One of the most fascinating parts of watching so many matches was seeing the same errors made over and over again. Most of the time, the players were completely unaware of the mistakes that they were making. One of the things I’ve learned as a language teacher is that the mistakes that people make in speaking a new language are significantly more important than what they do right, because mistakes show the creative thought process of the students. I think this is also true of Magic to an extent, and hopefully I can help player’s understand both things they are doing wrong that they can improve, but I also hope that players can extract a greater understanding of the environment. I’ll start with the biggest mistakes, and work my way down. Some are general, and some are specific, but they are all very important.

1. Forgetting about Flashback

This error was at once the most common and also the most game impacting error I saw during the prerelease. Flashback is one of the most inherently powerful mechanics in the game, and nearly all of the flashback spells are playable in the format. However, Flashback also requires you to pay attention to the graveyard, which is not something that Magic players are generally accustomed to do. The graveyard is the place where spells go that no longer matter, and it is hard for players to adjust to this tracking this zone.

Several times, I saw players sitting on a stalled board, wanting to punch through some damage, but not having creatures that were quite big enough, but the Travel Preparations in their graveyard would have allowed them to set up a significantly favorable attack. Other times, the players just didn’t add the preparations and get the extra damage, and instead did nothing productive on their turn. Some of the saddest mistakes were when a player had their opponent at 1 life, but forgot that they could flashback Geistflame for the win, at instant speed. Many players forgot they could remove a key blocker using Silent Departure. Others would try to equip a one toughness creature while their opponent had Geistflame in the yard. Or they would decline to cast spells in order to flip their werewolves, forgetting that their opponent had an active Think Twice in the graveyard.

There are two major sequences that lead to forgetting these spells. The first is not having enough mana to cast the spell. Magic players are conditioned to forget about what happened last turn, so a player would play their flashback spell this turn, and then go a turn or two down the road, and just forget that drawing one more land will turn on their spell. The second problem is related, because there are several spells with off color flashback costs, and players will often splash off of a Shimmering Grotto or a couple of basic lands. When that color of mana suddenly becomes available, the forget that they had a flashback spell that they could use. This is especially common with the Grotto, since it isn’t colored in the color of the flashback cost, so it is less likely to remind a player they have an active spell in the graveyard. The next biggest problem is that the graveyard window is very small, so players don’t see what is in there. The best way to combat these problems is simply to undock the graveyards of both players and put them on the edge of the screen. To do this, simply click on the graveyard icon.

2. Flipping Werewolves

The second biggest mistake is that players have the tendency to try to flip their werewolves as soon as possible. Transform cards are exciting, and players really want to get the more powerful side active quickly. So, the turn after they cast their werewolf, they’ll pass the turn without casting anything, even though they have a good card to play. Sometimes, that good card is another werewolf.  Then there opponent will kill one of the werewolves or play two spells, and the werewolf player will be significantly behind in time. This is especially important in such a tempo oriented format, and usually results in the werewolf player losing the game.

A general rule is that developing your board is almost always more important than flipping your werewolves. Flipping your werewolves is a powerful ability to use when you have nothing else productive to do on your turn. This is especially a problem with the less expensive werewolves. Players may spend two turns before turn 6 trying to flip their werewolves and just lose huge amounts of tempo, and for only a marginal bonus to power and/or toughness. The other consideration is that if you play out several werewolves, and then spend a turn without casting spells, then you’ll be able to flip all of your werewolves for the same cost as flipping one.

3. Fancy Play Syndrome

One of the best parts of Innistrad limited is the number of cool and potentially beneficial affects you can generate. But many players get too engaged in trying to make fancy plays instead of making the best play. Forbidden Alchemy is the flagship of this problem. This is one of the most fun cards that I’ve ever had the privilege of playing, and it is even pretty powerful. Some people are calling it blue’s top common, but I’m pretty sure that is just a symptom of this problem. One of the common mistakes I saw was that people would use this in the midgame instead of developing their board, probably because they knew it was a powerful effect, or because they wanted to turn on their Skaabs. Meanwhile, their opponent would be playing creatures and beating down. Another problem I see from reviewing drafts is that players keep picking Forbidden Alchemy and Think Twice over creatures, probably because they are cool. Then, they keep playing these cards that can’t affect the board and wonder why their opponent overran them.

The other big perpetrator of this problem is Thraben Sentry. When this card flips, it is fairly powerful, and can put away a game pretty quickly. But that does not mean it is worth throwing a valuable creature into combat where it is assuredly going to die to no effect other than flipping the sentry. Next thing you know, the Thraben Militia becomes a Victim of Night. It is much better to flip the sentry as a result of something useful than to throw away your creature in some creative way.

4. Bonds of Faith

By itself, Bonds of Faith was the most misplayed card in the format. This is vital since Bonds of Faith is one of the most powerful commons in the format. Many players know that Bonds of Faith is good, but apparently they just don’t understand why. I’ll give you a hint: being a bad Spectral Flight does not make this card good. Over the entire prerelease, I saw players put Bonds of Faith on their own creatures roughly two-and-a-half times more often than on their opponent’s creatures. This is a serious mistake. Over and over, I would see players putting this on a Thraben Militia, or Selhoff Occultist, or worst of all, Doomed Traveler.

For those that don’t understand, Bonds of Faith is good when it is being played on your opponent’s creatures to keep them from being able to attack or block. You should only play Bonds of Faith on your own creature as a last resort; perhaps the game is getting out of hand, but your opponent has no targets for Bonds of Faith, or perhaps it will allow you to punch through the two damage you need to win the game. The biggest problem with putting this on your own creatures is that it opens you up to a two-for-one when your opponent plays a removal spell. Don’t be the person that makes this mistake.

5. Milling

Another common mistake was that people were constantly milling their opponents. For some reason, Magic players are afraid to mill their own library. They are afraid that they are going to lose something important, or accidentally deck themselves, and so they hit their opponents with these abilities. Players see Milling as a bad thing, so they don’t do it to themselves.

The problem is that having cards in your graveyard is a benefit in this format. If you mill an opponent’s flashback spell, you have essentially put a card into their hand. If you mill a creature, you’ve turned on their Stitched Drakes, or Unburial Rites, or Ghoulraiser, or Boneyard Wurm. On top of that, you are denying yourself that same benefit. It is like you took a card out of your hand and put it in your opponent’s. When your Selhoff Occultist dies, mill yourself one card, it’s not going to kill you, and it’s much more likely to be neutral or benefit you than cause you harm.

There are definitely exceptions to this. Between Curse of the Bloody Tome and Dream Twist, there is a legitimate mill deck in the format. If you are that deck, or if your opponent is that deck, then you want to mill your opponent. Otherwise, stop giving your opponent free cards.


Hopefully this gives you some insight into the format. There is so much that I could say about Innistrad, but there is just not the space nor the time to do that now.  Remember that Tempo is key to the format, Synergy is more important than power, and don’t forget about your Flashback spells. Next time, I’ll walk us through the colors of Innistrad and talk about the unique qualities of each color and how those things affect deckbuilding.



Excellent analysis! by unspeakable at Thu, 10/20/2011 - 09:32
unspeakable's picture

Wow, that was a really good article. Excellent analysis of Innistrad limited. Your decision to review so many games was clearly a great response to the "I'm not going to pay through the nose for the prerelease" experience disadvantage. I think this is going to be a pretty fun limited environment as well.

Never disappointed by apaulogy at Thu, 10/20/2011 - 11:10
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I really like your articles. You have a good natural progression, you edit well, and you are thorough.

Good work.

As an aside, I deal with the prereleases the same way. I refuse to pay more when I know I don't have to.

The superimposed Obi-Wan did not go unnoticed!!

I am certified to teach English as a second language (though I don't). My major in college was Linguistics. What kinds of language classes do you teach?

Spanish. I lived in Chile for by oraymw at Thu, 10/20/2011 - 15:05
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Spanish. I lived in Chile for a few years, and then I came back and got my degree in English/Spanish Secondary Education. So I teach English and Spanish as a Foreign Language.

Que bueno by apaulogy at Thu, 10/20/2011 - 15:09
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Yo hablo Espanol y el japones.

I would like to reiterate how well done the article is.

Thanks! by silverwyvern4 at Thu, 10/20/2011 - 16:53
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This was a really good by dimir626 at Fri, 10/21/2011 - 07:02
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This was a really good article! I had no idea you could watch prerelease matches, and sifting through them to figure out what NOT to be doing seems incredibly helpful.

Milling in Innistrad by unspeakable at Fri, 10/21/2011 - 12:01
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I actually lost a game to milling last night in my 5th Innistrad draft game, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is not an unusual way to lose in this format. Neither of us were playing a milling deck, but we both included blue. I had milled myself for 10 or 15 cards or so, the game was going a bit long, my selhoff occultist was milling a lot due to other dudes dying off. I got hit with several activations by my opponents mindshrieker, and it was game over. I was really caught in a vice, since my opponent had Back from the Brink in play, and I didn't particularly want to mill them. So I would agree that generally it is better to mill oneself in this format, but there will be a number of games where you have to start comparing the benefit of extra cards with the rapidly diminishing size of your library. Just one more factor making this an extremly complex limited environment.

Milling is definitely viable by oraymw at Fri, 10/21/2011 - 15:30
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Milling is definitely viable in Innistrad, but I would not go into a draft planning to force the mill strategy, as it has some glaring weaknesses. But it might be an acceptable parachute if your draft gets entirely derailed.

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